WASHINGTON - Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman was leaving for a family vacation two summers ago when President Clinton appeared on national television to admit that he had, in fact, had an inappropriate relationship with a White House intern and had lied about it.
The scandal would be Topic A as four generations of Liebermans gathered at their rented beach house on the Connecticut coast that August. And the earnest, deeply religious senator, a longtime friend and colleague of the president's, an ally in their party's centrist wing, was furious.
Never mind that this was vacation. Lieberman was so consumed by his thoughts that he sat down at his laptop computer and spilled out a stinging, 3,000-word condemnation of Clinton for "immoral" and "harmful" behavior that, he said, compromised the president's moral authority and deserved public rebuke.
Eight days and eight drafts later, Lieberman delivered the speech on the Senate floor. In doing so, he became the first Democrat to publicly denounce the president in such a stern and substantive way, drawing congratulations from colleagues on both sides of the aisle and from his Connecticut constituents, who jammed the phone lines to his office.
In that one stirring and, as he later said, lonely, moment on the Senate floor - one that shook the president - Lieberman solidified his image as a man of deep integrity, solid convictions and independent thinking.
"This is a very moral man who was personally disappointed," says Lanny Davis, a close friend and former Clinton White House lawyer. "He felt it was very important for a Democrat to stand up and say these things, especially a Democrat who supported President Clinton."
Lieberman, 58, an Orthodox Jew whom Vice President Al Gore will formally name today as his running mate, is widely admired by colleagues precisely because, from time to time, the soft-spoken, sandy-haired senator has broken with his party to speak his mind, often in high-profile situations.
Speaking his mind
As a member of the Senate committee investigating campaign fund-raising abuses, for instance, he said he was "suspicious" that Chinese money entered the 1996 election. In a position that, no doubt, will be highlighted by Texas Gov. George W. Bush's camp, Lieberman chastised both Clinton and Republican Bob Dole, accusing them of betraying the public trust through "issue ads" and other "back-door" fund-raising devices that evaded spending limits. The "mad hatters" from both parties, he said, "hung a giant `For Sale' sign on our government."
The two-term senator and former Connecticut attorney general has also formed alliances with conservatives, such as Republican values guru William Bennett, attacking "trash TV" and gangsta rap and helping to get ratings systems for video games and TV networks. He is an honorary co-chairman of the Center for the Study of Jewish and Christian Values, a group that boasts a number of leaders of the Christian conservative movement, such as former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, on its board.
"Joe is obsessed and concerned with doing the right thing for the American people and the people of Connecticut, and he is willing to put his beliefs above traditional partisan interests," says Simon Rosenberg, president and, with Lieberman and Louisiana Sen. John B. Breaux, founder of the New Democrat Network. "He is someone who is willing to fight for his beliefs."
Much of who Lieberman is and what he stands for is a direct outgrowth of his religious faith, he has said. When Gore called him yesterday to offer him a place on the ticket, Lieberman said the two men prayed together over their cell phones.
Identity rooted in beliefs
"My belief in God is the beginning of a lot else that I am and have tried to do," he told The Sun in a 1998 interview about his faith.
Lieberman, the son of a liquor store owner who grew up in Stamford, Conn., and attended Yale and Yale Law School, does not wear his religion on his sleeve. But it seems to have a place in every corner of his life - sometimes literally. By the door to his Senate office is a mezuza, an ornament containing passages from Deuteronomy, as a symbol of God's protection. By his phone is a well-worn prayer book that he turns to three times a day.
He and his family observe the Jewish Sabbath - from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. He did not go to the Democratic convention in Connecticut that nominated him for the Senate in 1988 because it was held on a Saturday. Instead, he taped his acceptance speech.
After he and his first wife divorced and he was given the names of several available women from well-meaning friends, he picked one to call because he was intrigued by her name. Soon after, in 1983, he and Hadassah, a health care consultant and the daughter of a Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor, were married. The couple have four children, two from his previous marriage, one from hers, and a daughter, Hana, 12, together.